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Defense Minister Gantz (L), Foreign MInister Lapid (C) and Prime Minister Bennett. Photo: Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty

The Israeli government is forming a special team to manage the fallout from reports that software developed by Israeli firm NSO was used by governments around the world to spy on journalists, human rights activists and possibly world leaders, two Israeli officials tell me.

Why it matters: So far, this is primarily a media crisis for Israel. But senior Israeli officials are concerned it could morph into a diplomatic crisis.

Driving the news: An international consortium of investigative journalists reported on Sunday that NSO's "Pegasus" software — designed to track terrorists and criminals — had become a valuable tool for governments to spy on journalists and critics. Among the countries listed in the reports as NSO clients are Hungary, India and Saudi Arabia.

  • The Israeli officials told Axios that NSO's export license included terms about the misuse of spyware, the reports would likely influence future deals involving NSO and other Israeli companies.
  • “It is a very substantial crisis," a senior Israeli official told me. "We are trying to fully understand its ramifications. We will have to check whether the reports about NSO warrant a change in our policy regarding the export of offensive cyber technology to other countries."

What they're saying: A hint of the possible diplomatic fallout was provided Wednesday by the U.K.’s cyber czar, Lindy Cameron.

  • “We now see states that cannot build high end capability being able to buy it," Cameron said at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv, adding that it was "vital that all cyber actors use capabilities in a way that is legal, responsible and proportionate to ensure cyberspace remains a safe and prosperous place for everyone. And we will work with allies to achieve this."

Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz spoke at the same conference and said Israel was "studying" reports about the alleged use of the Pegasus software in violation of the terms of its export license. 

  • “We approve the export of cyber products only to governments and only for lawful use in order to prevent crime and terrorism. Countries who purchase those systems must adhere to the conditions of use," Gantz said.
  • NSO continues to deny the reports and claim to have taken all possible steps to ensure its software wasn't used for anything other than fighting crime and terrorism.  

Details: The interagency team includes representatives from the Ministry of Defense, which is in charge of defense export licenses, the Foreign Ministry, the Ministry of Justice, the Mossad spy agency, military intelligence and other agencies.

What's next: The team plans to start a discussion with NSO about the reports while also performing damage control over the diplomatic, security and legal ramifications, the Israeli officials said.

Go deeper

Report: Spyware used to target journalists, activists and world leaders

Researcher Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, allegedly had spyware "successfully installed" on her phone four days after his murder, according to analysis by Amnesty International’s Security Lab. Photo by Arif Hudaverdi Yaman/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Israeli cyber intelligence firm NSO Group's hacking software has been used to spy on heads of state, journalists, activists and lawyers across the world, per an investigation by 17 news organizations and nonprofits, published Sunday.

Why it matters: Authoritarian governments and others have used this spyware "to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale," with 50,000 phone numbers of targets leaked — including the family of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, alleges rights group Amnesty International, which helped research the report, which NSO called "false."

Pelosi says it's her "plan" to appoint GOP Rep. Kinzinger to Jan. 6 committee

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday that it is her "plan" to appoint Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.) to the House select committee investigating the deadly Jan 6. Capitol riots.

Why it matters: Pelosi's statement to ABC's "This Week" comes after she rejected two of the five Republican appointments offered by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.).

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